Spelunking for Apocalypse
Okay, I’ve been doing a lot of talking about Animal Man as a “narrative field” radiating out of the abyss–and it’s about time I dove in there(I’ll call out if I need you!)
These story arcs trace circles ’round a center that just ain’t there, so forget about taking the measurements–but if there’s a pi in the swirl, it’s “Ghosts of Stone”…
I know many of you have never come across this story, from Secret Origins #46(Dec 1989), so I’ll be as concrete here as I can!
It’s a JLA story…pencils by Curt Swan/inks & coloring by George Freeman.
The first page shows various figures in conflict with their own costumes. Black Canary. Martian Manhunter. Green Lantern. Aquaman. That crowd. Barry Allen’s suit is on the scene, but the Scarlet Speedster’s late to the party. That’s his schtick remember? A voice in a shimmering box says: “But first…tell me your story…”
We cut to a scene in which ol’ Flash makes his excuses to Iris West–he’s all revved up for the first official meeting of the JLA. But when he pops his costume out of the magic ring, it bolts for the door, laughing all the way. Barry grabs a spare and takes off in pursuit. It’s a closed loop. The splash page awaits!
Green Lantern subdues the costumes and J’onnz figures out pretty quickly that they’ve been possessed by aliens! “Aw not aliens again!” Barry whines… Meanwhile, the captives bust loose and dive into the side of a mountain. The Flash vibrates in after them–and the story proper gets under way…
The mountain speaks in blue boxes–giving a sketchy account of its origin. “Born in the collision of warring continents…Traumatic birth frenzy…” Doesn’t sound like an origin to me–but what else is new? No one knows where consciousness comes from–and this rock is no exception. So there’s nothing at the core, but everything in the past few billion years or so–well, that’s a different story. With apologies to Prego, “it’s in there”. “All my days diaried in the lattice. Profound memory of stone coded in the lattice structure…Recorded in the defect lattice…”
We watch as species rise and fall upon the earth, and a strange ship full of creatures lands… They die off and their vessel crumbles. “All the fleeting fragile lives… all of it recorded here and recreated in dynamic aural sculpture…”
“Vibration is the trigger”
The Flash finds he can’t take any more and extricates himself from the walls… This is the JLA and even at this early stage of their careers, they know aliens, and they know “giant silica macrochips”… Put these two things together and what do you get? Of course! The possesed costumes come in peace–they only want one last glimpse of their comrades who passed this way, so long ago. Dinah asks: “Will the canary cry do?” and lets loose. You may be sure it does the trick! The costumes fall to the ground. The Flash sums it up: “That’s all they wanted–just a moment to see their lost loved ones again. My God.”
Of course they move into the mountain and make it their home–wouldn’t you?
“Those brief radiant sparks that live and die… filled me with their noise and their haste…filled me with the brightness of their being, lit me like a lantern…all these echoing secret grottoes…and then they were gone… I often wonder what became of [them]… Now my heart lies empty, untenanted. And I grow old in the slow light of the stars… Sometimes some small creature will pass through me…activate the lattice memory with its ultrasound…and for a moment they are with me once more…burning brief candles of life…bright and splendid…flickering…long gone. Ghosts of stone.”
It’s sort of like “Till human voices wake us and we drown”, in reverse… And there you have it, friends–the cavern-mind of Grant Morrison! Ready to replay the stories echoing through its’ chambers for our pleasure–and his own…
But the vibration is the key.
The first sign of a ripple occurs in Animal Man #6 (usually written-off, thanks to the Invasion badge on its’ cover). I think it’s a mistake to pay too much attention to the famous “Coyote Gospel”… It’s a brilliant story, sure–but it throws us off the track, ramming that fourth wall… justifying the craze for a dead end… Killing coyotes doesn’t solve anything… it certainly won’t bring Billy back… Is this a paint brush I see before me? Out out damned ink blot!
So yeah, in issue #6 we find “Morrison”‘s first avatar–the Thanagarian “art martyr”. What’s his deal? He gives us a good synopsis on page 17: “I’ve psi-recorded my entire life experience onto the bomb, fully cross-referenced and infinitely detailed. The bomb will conduct a high-speed random search through my life fractal and when it encounters my most emotionally charged moment…It will detonate.” Previously, he had explained that: “A fractal shape is one which reveals more detail, more information, upon closer examination. It can be magnified indefinitely and still reveal new complexities. It occured to me that life itself could be regarded as having a fractal shape.” He thinks rather highly of himself: “[I am] A thing of rock. My heartbeat measures geological time. I feel invicible. I can do anything. Anything. And in the end, only one thing matters… The performance.”
Crazy art martyrs–they’ll be the death of us yet! But not this guy! The bomb finds its’ target (a proud moment: the creation of a fractal bird sculpture, a “great tortured shape wracked by infinities”, which causes its’ sculptor to wonder whether he is “creator or created”) and Buddy stares in horror as it gets ready to serve up the void… Luckily, good ol’ Katar Hol stops by, flashing a wry grin under that crazy beak: “All you had to do was switch it off.”
That’s Hawkman: 1, Apocalypse: 0.
You can’t throw a rock at a page of Animal Man without hitting some nut who wants to bury the space-time continuum in gray matter. You may remember the Red Mask’s friend–The Veil? An insubstantial avatar, to be sure. He’s got the vision. But he’s terminally lacking in the power department. Spoons his eyes out when he can’t take it anymore…
The Time Commander is another story entirely. I believe I’ve read somewhere (haven’t I?) that he’s supposed to be a version of Dr. Manhattan–that makes sense, he certainly possesses the latter’s enlarged temporal awareness–but he’s not content (as the blue guy was) to keep this to himself: “There is no death! Love denies entropy! Through love, we abolish death!” uhhh… no dude! Through love, we give meaning to death–without love, death would be meaningless. And love needs time to grow. Yes, the man does beautiful things for people in this story–mourners steal moments with dead spouses, parents, pets…unfortunately, he’s also turning Paris into a version of the whacko cartoon world that Crafty opted out of! “We’ve just seen German tanks and cavemen chasing Jean-Paul Sartre… The French Revolution’s happening right around the corner!” Is there any doubt that the “final transformation” this man is preaching would fulfill the art martyr’s mission?
Next up we’ve got the Psycho-Pirate–whose memory defies the raging current generated by the Big Bang of the Crisis… The end of time is bad enough, but the convergence of every dimension upon one poor asylum is catastrophic! How many story angles can dance on a pinhead? The Psycho-Pirate resolves to find out–chanting the names of the abolished dimensions… Meanwhile, Buddy walks through his own past trying to warn his family of the dangers that await them–unable to make himself known to them, like George Bailey in IAWL; or Scrooge in the Past; or Mary Henry in Carnival of Souls… There’s a simple message here: “Time is cruel”… But the desire to go back is crueller still…and the desire to forget is worst of all… Only the (often jagged) ground of remembrance gives meaning to the present, gives us the power to be kind… There really aren’t any other options–just canonball dives into loneliness and the void. Solipsism. There is no death ’cause I made this–and every choice is up to me. Emerson trod this path for years, off and on, but he could never quite rinse the dirt from his first wife’s grave off of his fingernails–and if he had, he wouldn’t have had much to say now would he…
Finally, from out of the catacombs of the Psycho-Pirate’s hubristic mind comes the Overman–a memory that even this mad conjuror wants to repress…but the floodgates are open, and the super-demon leaks out, armed with a warhead. Ranting, drooling: “IvegotthebombIvegotthebomb”, he stalks around the asylum, boasting of his plans… It’s a clear case of unchecked ontological aggression upon the phenomenal world–the Overman comes to bomb Morrison’s humane society back to the stone age.
But Buddy has learned a few things in the 18 issues since the Art Martyr landed–and this time he explains to the yellow alien chorus: “A piece of advice for when things are going badly… All you have to do is flip the switch.” And he does.
From that point it’s all academic. And not in a “death of the author” kind of way either–on the contrary, this author is “born again” into a world re-enchanted by Morrison’s brave refusal to sacrifice Buddy and his family to an unappeasable longing for some vision of “acceptance”. There is no acceptance in this story, no cathexis for the recurrent waves of apocalypse, no demolition of the Platonic Cave which is the only home that any human being with a sense of limitation will ever know. We find those limits at the border to other minds. We may not be able to pass through the barrier. But we can shine a light across.
Good night friends!